Chapter 1: Billy from Crafton 1 Billy from Crafton
As far back as I can remember, I was always surrounded by people who were passionate about one of two things: work or sports. For me, as early as nine years old, it was both. I embraced work so I’d be free to play all the games I found irresistible.
I didn’t think there was anything unusual about the lives and routines of the families around me, because that was life for kids in the 1960s and ’70s of my Pittsburgh neighborhood. We were tireless grade-schoolers in the working-class area of Crafton, and we treated our games like our full-time jobs.
My family lived in a brick Victorian on Hawthorne Avenue. It was a street where PAT buses—public city buses in Pittsburgh—would sometimes wait until the end of a play before driving through our pickup football games. Even then, several years before high school, I saw myself as a linebacker. I shared a bedroom with my two brothers, Dale and Doug, and the posters on our wall told part of my story: One showed the Chicago Bears’ Dick Butkus, intense and athletic, in action, and the other was of his equally strong divisional rival, the Green Bay Packers’ Ray Nitschke. Both of them, in those pictures and in reality, always seemed to be ready for what was next. The next play. The next quarter. The next game.
That was me.
No matter what I had to do away from sports, I could always see a path back to the games, whether playing them or discussing them. For example, I can still remember delivering the old Pittsburgh Press on Sunday mornings in the fall. I had about thirty customers during the week and even more on Sundays. I’d race to finish my route, then sit with my father, Laird Cowher, as he watched Notre Dame football highlights on TV (he always loved Notre Dame), then get ready for church. He followed all sports, but I wouldn’t say he was athletic. He was a tall man, about six-four, and lean. He had dark hair and a strong jawline. While Laird was his given name, everyone called him Bill. Which made me “Billy” to my family and friends. My father was our Sunday school teacher. We attended Hawthorne Avenue Presbyterian Church, about four doors down from our house. Dad’s hour-long lesson plan was structured the same way every week: If we paid attention and did what we were supposed to in the first forty-five minutes, we could spend the remaining time talking about sports.
In a lot of ways, that arrangement was a glimpse of how my father operated. He was an accountant who had a meticulous approach to his work. In his office area in the house, you could always find five sharpened No. 2 pencils along with an orderly assortment of staples, erasers, sheets of paper, and paper clips—all in a designated area. He put his thoughts on paper, whether it was to-do lists or his feelings about a particular topic. If any of us went to his desk for any reason, he’d loudly remind us, “Leave it the way you found it.” If one thing was slightly out of place, he could always spot it. Business, and details, were important to him, but so were sports.
Baseball was his first love. I remember how he’d spend hours with me in the cinder alley behind our house, trying to teach me how to throw a curveball.
“Snap your wrist, Billy!” he’d say in exasperation. “Snap it.” He’d show me the motion and then execute it flawlessly. When I tried, I’d either skip the ball well short of him, causing the cinders to fly in the air, or I’d leave the ball too high. (I continued to play baseball, but I could never throw the curve. Or hit it.)
Dad was no-nonsense about baseball, both as a coach and an umpire—he’d let you know if you weren’t playing the right way. One of my best friends growing up was a kid named John Lynch. John lived one street over from us, on South Linwood. He spent so much time at my house playing Foto-Electric football and table hockey that Dad was comfortable speaking with him the same way he spoke with us, his sons. Dad was the umpire for one of John’s baseball games and sensed that a frustrated John, not having a good day on the mound, was hitting batters on purpose. Dad called time and approached the hill.
“John, I know what you’re doing. Don’t be a punk. If you hit one more kid, I’m going to throw you out of this game.”
Even better, after that game, Dad saw John walking home. Dad slowed the car and offered him a ride. John tried to give Dad the No thank you, Mr. Cowher treatment, but Dad insisted that he get in. Of course, John knew that another lecture was coming. Dad used that brief drive as another opportunity for more coaching on the right way to do things. That was a consistent theme with my parents. They wanted us to play well, and they wanted to see evidence that we were improving, too.
I couldn’t get enough of sports. I played baseball, basketball, football, and tennis. I was on the run from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning until the end of the day. I excitedly went with my dad around the city, whether it was to the Civic Arena to see Duquesne University basketball, to walk up steep Lothrop Street (also known as Cardiac Hill) for University of Pittsburgh football games, or to Three Rivers Stadium to see the Steelers play.
I was endlessly active, and tall but reed thin, so my mother, Dorothy—everyone called her Dot or J.D.—tried her creative best to help me gain weight. She did all she could to get some pounds to stick. Every night before bed, she’d have a milkshake for me to drink, and she’d blend in a little of everything. When she made steak for dinner, I always got an extra one. She loved making brownies, and it made her smile when I filled up on them. If I went to Wendy’s, I’d order the triples. For breakfast, strangely, it was the smell of burnt toast that lured me to the kitchen. We had a toaster that wouldn’t pop on its own, so the bread would often burn—and I grew to love the smell and the burnt toast itself. I’d eat everything Mom made and then either walk out the door if I saw the school bus coming down Hawthorne or run if it had passed the house because, fortunately, I could catch up to it when it turned on Linwood.
It was a blessing to grow up where I did, and how I did. I never consciously thought at the time, My parents are a great team, but they were. They were both inspiring, with different styles. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She was personable and warm, with a knack for making fast friends. She’d played basketball growing up, so she held her own in a house full of athletic boys. Everyone in the neighborhood knew how friendly she was. She could be seen walking everywhere because she didn’t drive. My father tried to teach her many times, and it led to some naturally funny exchanges between the two:
“Your father said that when you’re making a turn, you don’t have to turn the wheel back after that,” Mom would say.
“But, Dot,” Dad would reply, “I didn’t say to take your hands off the wheel!”
They pushed all of us boys to reach our potential as athletes. My brothers and I were constantly going off to some sports camp. We lived less than one hundred miles from West Virginia University, so I attended overnight football camp there multiple times. The first time I went there at eight years old, I was probably the youngest kid there. Jim Carlen was the head coach, and I was there when the one and only Bobby Bowden took over for him. My parents put in the investment for my brothers and me, and they always wanted to know the same things when we returned: How did you get better? What did you learn?
By the time I entered Carlynton High School in the fall of 1971, a few things had become clear to me. One was, I shared the same love and mastery of numbers that my father did. All aspects of math came easily to me. I looked forward to any math course, whether it was algebra, trigonometry, or, eventually, calculus.
Our football team definitely had a math problem. That is, most of the time we had between twenty-two and twenty-four players on the entire roster. Everyone on the team played offense and defense. I started out as a center and linebacker, then switched to a tight end / linebacker combination. At center, I expected to make every block. At linebacker, I expected to make every tackle. My thoughts on the field were straightforward: I was overjoyed to play, and I wanted to find every way possible to help my team win. There was nothing intricate about our playbook: We had six plays, three passing and three running; our six became twelve when we flipped the formation and ran the same plays.
Our not having a lot of players led to our becoming an incredibly close team. I loved those guys, and I knew that it was mutual. By high school, I had long been hooked on the strategy and competition that football provided. But what playing on our team really taught me was the importance of unity and getting something—even the smallest contribution—out of every person on the roster.
In my sophomore year I became the best player on our team, being selected as one of our captains. It felt good to be the person everyone felt he could connect with, and the guy the others looked to for leadership and playmaking. What felt even better, though, was watching everyone on our team have a role that was uniquely his. That’s the beauty of football: You don’t have to be a great player or great athlete to be a part of it. It’s a sport that destroys divided teams and rewards those who rely on one another. At its best, football is a unifier and a confidence builder for young boys.
In football-crazed western Pennsylvania, we were a Class A (or small division) team. We had success on the field, but the memories I’ll never forget were, simply, the hangouts. John Lynch was still one of my best friends, along with Tom Hennessy, Bill Clay, and many other guys from the team, including my younger brother, whom we called Dougie. There didn’t need to be a special occasion for us to do something. We just liked getting together.
My desire to socialize got the attention of my father. In a way that only he could, he forced me to change the sequence of what I wanted to do. I’d tell my parents that I was going out with the guys, and my dad would respond, “Okay, Billy. Go out. I’m sure your competition is lifting weights or doing something to get better. But it’s all right. Go out.”
I knew what he was doing, and I didn’t like it. But his words resonated; I’d often lift weights first, then head out with my friends. He was pushing me, and sometimes my mother felt that he was pushing too much. “Don’t worry about it, Billy,” she’d say with assurance. “You know how your father can be sometimes.”
What I didn’t realize until many years later, well into my thirties, was that my father was not only clipping every article written about me, he was also keeping his own scouting report of how I played. He needled aggressively, but his pride was obvious when he spoke with other people about me or let them see his writings. He’d meet a total stranger, and if I was there, he’d say, “And this is my son Billy. He had twenty tackles in his game last week. He’s the best player in his conference.” I’d just shake my head. I was a confident and passionate player, but my father had more confidence in me than I did in myself.
“Any attempt to evaluate Bill’s performance on a game-to-game basis would be asinine,” he wrote in 1973. “If he had a bad game, I can’t recall which it would have been.… Some of his efforts were of superstar proportions.”
As a sophomore, I was named an all-star player in our league, the Black Hills Conference. I got stronger and more confident the next season, and I repeated as an all-star. I was six-two and about 190 pounds. I’d stopped playing baseball by then, but I’d replaced it with track and field throwing the shot put. I also kept playing basketball, as the center on our team. My love for basketball and my love for football were equal. Even though I was supposed to be our option in the post, I liked going to the corner and scoring from there. I played basketball with an edge, and my toughness from the football field didn’t always go over well on the basketball court. At least once I fouled out of a game in the first half.
I loved basketball. But I was a realist. Despite the occasional letters I got from college basketball coaches, I knew that I wasn’t a college basketball player. There was no future in it for me. Football? That was a different story. I thought I’d play college football. What I didn’t know was where it would be.
Butkus and Nitschke had retired from the NFL by the end of my junior year in 1974, so I began to focus my attention on a couple of other linebackers: Hacksaw Reynolds of the Los Angeles Rams, and a Steelers rookie, Jack Lambert. They were both thin linebackers, like me, but they made up for the perceived deficiency with pure energy. Their obvious love of the game seemed to prevent them from ever getting tired. One of Lambert’s teammates, Jack Ham, was also a smart and instinctive player. I liked watching Ham where he was, with the Steelers. But I desperately wanted to be where he’d been in college, at Penn State.
Penn State was the place for young linebackers to thrive. I’d picture myself suiting up in the iconic navy and white and running into Beaver Stadium. But I got a letter from Penn State that dashed that dream; I was told I was too thin and too slow to play there. A similar letter came from Indiana University and Lee Corso, their head coach. I was heartbroken and knew there were doubts about me and my league’s level of competition, but that rejection just made me hungrier.
I became even more obsessed with the game. I was sure not many people in the country wanted to be on the field as much as I wanted to. I often felt that I needed to be out there, and it was my responsibility to help myself and others exhaust all resources in order to win. I was better than most college coaches thought, and a big part of the reason was that I never got tired of playing football.
By the summer of ’74, the summer before my senior year, I was focused. I went to another football camp, this one at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), about an hour from home. I stayed there and got a taste of what life would be as a college player. A few of my teammates from Carlynton also went to the camp, and so did kids from one of our conference rivals, Fort Cherry. (One of their best players was Marvin Lewis, who attended the camp, and he was a player who had college visions just as I did.)
I got better at IUP. I became more of a leader and strategist than a football player. It allowed me to see some of my teammates in a different environment, and it reminded me that they were willing to make a sacrifice in the middle of July just as I was. I began to understand that it was another way to bond and build trust as a team. During the season, if we were in a tough situation, I knew I could look at those players and know that they were just as committed as I was. We could always recall the hard work we’d put in during the summer, on the field, and how we’d strengthened our friendships and respect for one another off it.
We lost just two games my senior year, and I had another all-star season. However, college recruiters weren’t impressed. I got used to a pattern: I’d visit schools all over the country, from all the top conferences. I’d walk in and they’d look at me as if they’d seen a ghost. They knew from the film that I was tall and thin, but I guess the difference in seeing a 195-pound linebacker on film and in person was drastic. The college coaches already knew I wasn’t the fastest player, so when they combined that with my size, the visits ended with, essentially, thanks for coming.
By early 1975, the only scholarship offer I received was from William & Mary, a Virginia school about a six-hour drive from Pittsburgh. I liked that it had a strong academic reputation, and the head coach, Jim Root, genuinely seemed to want me. Root’s assistants began their recruitment my junior year and kept in consistent contact. As far as I was concerned, I was headed there in the fall.
Still, one of my final college visits was to the University of Maryland. The program had become one of the best in the nation with the arrival of head coach Jerry Claiborne. They played my style of ball, too. The year before, they had five shutouts. They had an amazing hybrid defensive lineman / linebacker, Randy White, who became a second overall pick in the NFL draft. The program finished in the Top 15 nationally. Who wouldn’t want to go there? If I walked off that campus with a scholarship offer, I’d have a lot to think about.
Well, I walked off the campus. And once again, there was no offer. I headed to the airport for the short flight from DC to Pittsburgh.
As I took my seat waiting for the plane to depart, a man came to my row and sat down. I don’t remember wearing a jacket or a hat that identified me as an athlete, but the man talked to me as if he knew who I was.
“Hey, big guy, where are ya headed?”
I could tell he was talkative and friendly. I told him that I was from Pittsburgh and that I’d just taken a college visit to Maryland.
He smiled. “If you’re good enough to play at Maryland, then you’re good enough to play for us!”
His name was Larry Beightol. The “us” he talked about was North Carolina State. He was an assistant coach there, and he spoke with authority. He talked as if he knew that the head coach, Lou Holtz, would agree with his scholarship recommendation. He casually mentioned that Holtz would likely visit me on Hawthorne Avenue. We chatted the rest of the flight.
I didn’t have time to think if Beightol was serious about what he’d said because he followed up about two weeks later. He’d watched film of my games and confirmed what he’d said on the plane. Sure enough, to the delight of my parents, Holtz scheduled a trip to Crafton to see us.
Things were moving quickly and I was conflicted. William & Mary pursued me as if they wanted me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that North Carolina State came after me because they had a scholarship to give. They were late recruiting me. Did I really want to go there?
Those were some of the thoughts I had as I sat in our living room in the spring of 1975, with my parents, as Holtz made his case for North Carolina State. My parents were thrilled that day, but very much themselves. Mom told the coach to have a seat, then she went off to get him something to drink.
Dad listened a little and bragged a lot: “You’re getting one heck of a football player. A lot of schools would be as glad as you are to have him.”
I sat there thinking, Dad, a lot of schools? I had two: William & Mary and this one.
Holtz said all the right things about taking care of me and helping me grow from boyhood to manhood. He’d built a powerful, nationally respected program in Raleigh after he’d arrived there from… William & Mary.
Everything was pointing to State. My parents wanted me to do it. My friends were not used to seeing kids from small-team, small-conference schools such as ours play in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They wanted me to go. And a glance at Coach Holtz’s résumé seemed to be a push toward the South as well: Here was a man who’d said goodbye to William & Mary for an opportunity at NC State, and it worked out for him. The message seemed to be clear that the same would work out for me.
The decision was made. I planned to spend the next four years in Raleigh, North Carolina. This decision elevated my game and changed the course of my life.